Muslim Link – Maryland Passes Bill to Accommodate Muslim Funeral Rites

Muslim Link Staff Writer

Maryland Muslims will no longer travel long distances to search for a licensed mortician to perform funeral services before the body goes to the cemetery for burial.

The General Assembly approved the House Bill 457 in March 2007. The bill received bi-partisan support of 136 delegates when it went to the health committee on March 14th. By October, it will become a law, recognizing the burial practices of Muslims and Jews verses Christians.

The HB457 renames the State Board of Morticians to be the State Board of Morticians and Funeral Directors. It requires that an individual be licensed by the Board before the individual may practice funeral direction in the State. The bill entails the Board to establish qualification requirements for licensing funeral directors, which do not include embalming.

The first Muslim in the Maryland House of Delegates, Saqib Ali (D-Montgomery) and Samuel I. Rosenberg (D-Baltimore) introduced this Maryland legislation in the General Assembly in February 2007. Both Rosenberg and Ali are drawn to religious and education issues.

The new legislation will provide accommodation for people of various faith groups whose burial practices are not protected under Maryland’s current mortician laws. The existing law requires all students studying to be morticians to perform embalming on at least 20 corpses in a funeral home before obtaining the mortician license.

The mortician license is required in order to operate a funeral home. This dual-requirement presents a problem for people of Islamic and Judaic faiths because both religions prohibit the practice of embalming.

“We were always in support of this bill. If anybody who is in the funeral service industry doesn’t want to embalm, they will be able to practice in a way that is most fitting to their culture or religious belief,” said Laurie Sheffield-James, executive director of the state Board of Morticians in Baltimore, Maryland.

“We were testifying before the House Health and Government Operations Committee to be able to direct our own funeral homes. Although the Muslim burial is simple and costs much less than a Christian burial, it was not for the money. We wanted this bill approved for accessibility,” said Farooq Marfani, funeral director at Islamic Society of Baltimore (ISB), who also performs funeral services in Prince George’s Howard and Montgomery counties.

“I think that it is a step in the right direction. There are some real concerns regarding diseases. We as Muslim really do need to be educated as to what precautions need to be taken before, during, and after the care of a dead human body. No, we should not have to practice embalming, and we should agree to list our funeral homes as funeral homes that do not embalm by religious choice, not because we are not qualified. As this may take away from the good reputation that we hope to establish,” said Habibah Brown Taalibdin, who is studying to be a licensed mortician at University of District of Columbia in Washington, DC.

HB457 simplifies the existing mortician license requirements. According to Sheffield-James, the legislation is the most effective way of providing a diverse service to different faith groups. The legislation provides two conditions; one with embalming and another without embalming. The individuals who want to be exempt from embalming will be able to obtain a “Funeral Director’s License,” while others will receive “Mortician License” and undergo the embalming requirements as written in the original law.

“This way, the Muslim funeral directors may be certified without having to perform any embalming,” said Sheffield-James.

Now, the Muslim funeral directors are able to immediately perform ablution and prepare the body for burial as it is prescribed in Islam. Muslims will save time trying to provide funeral services in a speedy manner rather than waiting until the next business day to find a mortician to prepare the body if a need to wash a body arises after business hours.

In addition, the new legislation allows Muslims to open up funeral homes near the Masajids where Muslim community members will be able to utilize its services as quickly as possible.

The law is being kept close to original as possible. However, the new legislation amended certain conditions to make is favorable to Muslims and Jews. The bill asked the Maryland state Board of Morticians to issue funeral director licenses to Muslims and Jewish leaders who can independently take care of a body from the time of death to the burial instead of waiting on the services of a licensed mortician.

The purpose of the State Board of Morticians is to carry out the duties mandated under Title 7 of the Health Occupations Article. The primary purpose is the protection of the public’s health and welfare through proper credentialing, examination, licensure, and discipline of morticians, funeral directors, surviving spouses, and apprentices and funeral establishments in Maryland. The Board also inspects and licenses funeral establishments upon proof of compliance with all applicable Federal, State, and local laws.

“We are interested in protecting the public. We want to make sure anybody directing the funeral home has proper licensing to operate a funeral home,” said Sheffield-James. “We always want to be sensitive as we can be to people of other faiths. The new law will allow certain members to obtain a mortician license to start their own funeral homes.”

The legislation benefits the Maryland Muslims. However it is still unclear whether similar laws will be passed in Virginia or District of Columbia. It is agreed by lawyers that Virginia law doesn’t require embalming, and now the new Maryland law will modified its laws to take out the embalming requirements for Muslim funeral directors operating their private funeral homes.

According to Legal Services of Northern Virginia, all funeral providers must inform families about the state and local government laws and the particular funeral regulations that may affect a family’s decision. One does not have to accept every item that is listed by the provider. Embalming is not necessary in the State of Virginia and is not required if there will be a closed casket with no viewing.

“We don’t have any laws in Virginia that are comparable to the Maryland law,” said Elizabeth Young, executive director of Virginia Funeral Directors Association in Richmond, Virginia. “It would be interesting to see if people in Virginia will lobby for something that would affect our funeral laws. However, embalming is not required by Virginia laws anyway.”

Along with funeral licensing concerns, there are few other questions regarding burial services among the Muslim community. Traditionally, Muslims don’t bury the caskets in the ground whereas it is the normal Christian ritual.

According to Marfani, there is no law in Maryland which mandates the purchasing of the casket to be dropped into the ground for burial. “It is a practice to transport the body from one place to another. Certain cemetery land owners may make it a requirement to protect the land.”

In addition, another matter is whether the opening of Muslim-owned funeral services will increase competition for the long-existing Christian funeral homes that have accommodated Muslims for years. With the opening of Muslim funeral homes, the outcome will be the loss of revenue for Christian funeral homes.

Sheffield-James stated that a Christian burial may cost anywhere from 8,000 to 9,000.

Marfani stated a Muslim burial may cost anywhere from 2,500 to 3,500.

“No, opening of Muslim funeral homes will not create a severe competition for us. We have always been honored to facilitate services for people of all faiths. The board is more than glad to allow the opening of more funeral homes,” said Sheffield-James.

DC Area Muslims agree even before the legislation was approved, DC, MD, and VA Christian funeral homes have been more than accommodating to the religious requirements and limitations of Muslims.

“It is important to note that Loudon Chapel in Leesburg, Virginia, Lewis and Bell Funeral Homes in Temple Hills, Maryland are just some of the funeral homes that have bent-over-backwards to accommodate our practices,” added Taalibdin.

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